Heat and Dust

From Albania to Macedonia- a short ride turned into a long ordeal but finally Manas and Anu reached their destination for the night

Yesterday it was yet another hot day at the little Albanian village of Udenisht. Most of our time was spent in waiting out the sun- sitting at the balcony at the home of our hosts Shabani and Leila. From our vantage point, we could see the lake Ohrid stretched below. The heat hung upon us like a wet rag- hot and moist, drenching us with sweat. Occasionally a light breeze would float down carrying with it a distant “mooo” of some cattle grazing in the fields. It would bring with it smells of the country- flowers, grass and the gently ripening fruits of Shabani’s garden next to us. The village also seems in a stupor- showing scarcely any signs of life. An occasional wail of a child and the ‘Shhhhhh…’of the mother broke the silence. The main road of the village runs a few meters below our house- a broken patch of tarmac barely a meter wide- and in the last couple of days we have not observed more than a tractor and a lone car pass through. The highway runs along the lake, and carries with it the usual flow of traffic- trucks, cars and occasional motorbikes.

Our hosts Shabani and his wife Laila are kind folks. We have much to say to each other- mostly with sign language- or google translate. Last night over dinner, he recounted his early life. They have been married for nearly three decades now- and when he met Laila his wife, he had approached her with an offer- “I have two cows” he had announced proudly. Back in the days, it was much- and this offer sealed the deal; that was nearly thirty years ago. Today he has his own house overlooking the lake- with a small garden where they grow onions, capsicum, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Laila tends to the home, the plants and at 53 years of age, she is a proud mother of two children- both settled abroad. This was an exceptionally prosperous household by rural Albanian standards.

The talk gradually shifted to their children and family. Their eldest is a school teacher in England, married to an English lady. He converted to Christianity because he loved the girl, Laila announced- and that is perfectly fine. Their eyes sparkle with filial pride as Shabani and Laila talk about the children.

Albania is poor- perhaps poorer than many parts of rural India. And life here is hard. Opportunities come few and far between. Albania offers little scope for its young generation, most of them try to migrate to other countries or to Tirana in search of livelihood- the village is mostly bereft of youth… except those that could not make it to the greener pastures. Aida, their neighbour has a three year old boy- she was the English teacher in the local school but now she spends her time tending after the child and home: “It is not easy to get a job- corruption, scarcity and lack of opportunities…” she explains.

Down below I see a few youths taking their boats out onto the lake. Fish are in plenty, the eels are easy catch and the lake provides water for their homes, field and cattle. It is not an easy life- but the villagers are friendly. “We live together and we support each other” explains Shabani whose family of brothers and nephews are spread around his homestead. Albania is a beautiful country and we live in hope and with togetherness… after all that is what keeps us smiling he says.

The last few weeks have not been easy for us. We have been riding for hours in the crazy temperatures, reeling under the heat wave. There has been a constant ‘Orange Warning’ for extremely high temperature and caution of bush fire.

We stayed with Shabani and Laila for two days. We swam in the lake with the village kids, took the boats out into the waters and spent several hours with the villagers.

We set our sights for Macedonia… the village of Peshtani which was on the opposite shore of the Lake Ohrid. It was nearly 5pm when the sun seemed a bit milder that we said our goodbyes. Our gps suggested the border crossing adjacent to Pogradec to enter Macedonia and we passed the tall minarets, heard the evening call for prayers and we were soon at the border gates of Macedonia! That was a short ride indeed. But alas, our jubilation was premature as we soon found out.

“All your papers are in order but your European insurance card is not sufficient for Macedonia” declared the border control officer. We knew the drill by now. Certain countries do not accept the common European insurance- there you have to purchase additional insurance before the motorbike is allowed past the border gates. “Yes we are ready to purchase the insurance- where can we buy it?” I asked. The officer replied with a satisfied smile “Here they do not sell insurance- so you cannot enter by this gate: you have to re-enter Albania, travel around the lake and find the other border control on the opposite side of the lake…. Hopefully they have the insurance office and you can enter from that border.”

Not a great announcement, you can imagine when you have ridden in the heat, exited the passport controls of Albania and then being told to return back. It was frustrating because my road research had not turned up this important fact previously. But our please fell on deaf ears- and we had to turn back again- into the long queue of the Albanian border. After nearly 4 extra hours of additional passport controls, we could finally enter Macedonia with the local insurance- a tiny slip of paper which was by far the most expensive across all the states we travelled till now. For a 15 day motorbike insurance, they charged us 50 Euro. That was our start to the Macedonia experience- we were drained from the heat, frustrated by the extra detour and bitter at being charged such a hefty amount for a measly third party motorbike insurance for 15 days.

It was nearly dark now and the traffic chaos of Albania spilled onto the streets of Macedonia as well. Near the town of Struga, we crossed piles of rubbish burning alongside roads, and for the first time in these months, we passed by slums- tin roofs and shanties against the backdrop of more affluent dwellings. The road itself was a dual carriageway fringing the lake Ohrid and in the dark, we passed miles of traffic till we finally reached Peshtani, our destination for the night. What was planned as a 1 hour short ride turned into a 6 hour ordeal. We rustled up some dinner in a roadside restaurant and fell into an exhausted, dreamless stupor.

Tomorrow will be a better day, we hoped.

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